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Tuesday, July 23, 2024


Clermont Lodge Clears First Hurdle

Developer John Connors Sr. addresses the Dennis Township Consolidated Land Use Board Feb. 23
Herald Screenshot

Developer John Connors Sr. addresses the Dennis Township Consolidated Land Use Board Feb. 23, as traffic engineer David Shropshire, left, looks on. Connors is proposing a $65-million-plus luxury resort on a 30-acre wooded parcel in Clermont. 

By Shay Roddy

CLERMONT – A proposal for a luxury resort tucked in 30 acres of woods, near the intersection of Routes 9 and 83, in Clermont, cleared its first hurdle on the path to development Feb. 23.
In a Zoom meeting of the Dennis Township Consolidated Land Use Board, Clermont Lodge received a use variance after a unanimous vote by the board, ending a meeting that lasted longer than four hours. 
The decision gives the developer the confidence to move forward with applying for permits and approvals from other agencies and to perform more technical and costly studies and plans before returning to the local board for final site plan approval.
Plans for the project, which developer John Connors Sr. estimates will cost a total of $65 million to $70 million, call for a rustic retreat with a three-story main lodge, including 56 hotel rooms, 40 one- and two-bedroom bungalows and 24 private cabins. 
He said he is fully committed to completing the project but saw the use variance as a threshold issue that should be dealt with first.
Also on the grounds, plans call for a tavern, which would be open to the public, two stand-alone event barns, which could host weddings, corporate events, and other gatherings, a playhouse, which could host community theater or other live performances and double as a wedding chapel, indoor and outdoor pickleball courts, and various other amenities.
In an article published in January, the Herald broke the story about the Clermont Lodge proposal and gave a detailed overview of Connors and his vision.
In the Zoom meeting, which, at times, had over 80 participants, Connors acknowledged there are questions still to be answered before the project is ready for final approval. He said he is fully committed to adequately addressing those at the appropriate time.
“The biggest issue that you heard last night with the public was sequence. The underlying theme was there’s a lot of due diligence yet to be done. Why are you granting the variance now? And that is the nub of the whole discussion,” Connors said in an interview after the meeting. “The due diligence investigations that come next are very expensive and very time-consuming. And if you were to do all of that and then have the project fail on the basic use variance, it would’ve been expensive, time-consuming, and a fool’s errand, frankly.”
In a sense, the meeting was an opportunity for the applicant to feel the board out on if it would be amenable to this development concept. By granting the use variance, the board allows Connors to develop the back half of the property, which borders the Garden State Parkway, as he desires, building bungalows and cabins, along with the pickleball facility that will be part of the resort, even though that part of the parcel is zoned residential. All of the proposed development is tucked deep in woods that are part of the parcel.
Requesting the use variance first was Connors’ way of determining if the township would find the project palatable before expending the time and money necessary to progress the application and refine the details. 
He said its eventual development will be backed by institutional financing, adding he has had people reaching out to him from several industries asking if there may be a way to get involved in some capacity after the January Herald article precipitated abundant media coverage of the proposal.
“We did not expect, frankly, any media coverage at this stage,” Connors said after the meeting. “It did, in fact, go viral. But it caught me by surprise. Not that projects don’t get media attention when they advance, but this was so preliminary. Basically, we floated a concept, and the next thing we know, we’re on the nightly news. It’s very unique in my experience.”
Next in the process for Connors and team is obtaining permits and authorization from agencies outside the township. The project will require approvals from agencies, including the state Department of Environmental Protection, state Department of Transportation, Cape Atlantic Soils, Cape May County Planning Board, and sewer and water treatment regulators.
After that is complete, the project will return to the Dennis Township board, which, in the meantime, is planning its own traffic study to consider the impact the development would have on an already busy intersection. 
The applicant presented testimony from David Shropshire, an engineer Connors hired to study traffic in the area, who said the proposal would generate less traffic than alternative uses allowed under the township’s zoning ordinance.
Connors’ project would have roughly 10% site coverage and he repeatedly testified about the tranquil feel he envisions for the property, which would keep much of the natural vegetation and trees intact.
Plans call for a 2-acre, manmade lake, a portion of which would be open to guests for swimming. The lake would be lined and might include bubblers, according to testimony.
At the next local board meeting when this project is heard, the applicant would seek final site plan approval and show that they meet conditions dealing with fire safety for a variance they sought to build the lodge 45-feet, while only 30-feet is allowed under ordinance.  
Connors withdrew a request for a parking variance, which he said was a self-imposed limitation from the beginning. Local ordinance requires 293 parking spots in accordance with the plans for the project, but the applicant had proposed fewer, thinking he had identified the appropriate number necessary and wanting to preserve more of the woods.  

Having plenty of land, he agreed he will add more parking and comply with the township’s requirement instead of requesting relief, taking that issue off the table. 

If they meet the conditions on the variance for building height, final site plan approval from the local board would be the final hurdle to clear before construction could begin. Connors estimated construction length at 14-18 months, in response to a question from Board member Elizabeth Martucci. 

He said he is not sure how long the process will take to be ready to bring this back in front of the Dennis board, after getting outside agency approvals. That is something they are working to determine internally, he said. 
Robert Belasco, the attorney for the applicant, led the presentation for the Clermont Lodge team, which included testimony from Connors, Shropshire, engineer Vince Orlando and architect David Schultz. 
Schultz also designed the Reeds, in Stone Harbor, which has been a critically acclaimed hotel that has had a measurable positive impact on Stone Harbor’s business district since it opened in 2013.
Public comments were made for and against the project, but the majority were not in favor of the development. Cassandra Gluyas, a resident who, prior to the meeting, sent copies of a 16-page rebuttal report she composed to the applicant, board members, the Herald, and others, made over 21 minutes of remarks during public comment, pointing out her concerns about the project.
Others from the neighborhood stated concerns during public comment, including impact on wildlife, the potential destruction of wetlands, traffic and bicycle safety, fire safety, and noise.
The applicant acknowledged that some of those concerns do not yet have a prepared answer, but that is by design, and Connors insists the answers will soon come in a sufficient fashion now that he sees a green light to expend the resources to go get them. He said his track record should give those who are concerned confidence he will deliver as he says.
Connors did say they believe there are no wetlands on the property and that it had been surveyed for them. There is a buffer zone that encroaches onto the border of the property, which is a protected area surrounding wetlands, but it is not in the proposed development area.
The board stated they had concerns with the specifics of the proposal but understood those are going to be addressed down the line.
“I think it’s a great project,” Daniel Walsh, chairman of the land use board, said before voting in favor of the use variance. “I thought the presentation was outstanding and I think it’s going to enhance Dennis Township … It definitely fits in with the Dennis Township environment.”
Other board members echoed that sentiment and some said they have concerns they expect to be addressed. Connors said on the record after getting the vote that he wanted to thank the board and the public for their concerns.
“Your concerns are our concerns,” he said during the meeting. “We really do want to make it special … We couldn’t be happier with the outcome and can’t wait to get started on the next step.”
What’s next on the path to development?
“Now, we refocus. The plan for today (Feb. 24) and Monday is to rework the critical path on what we know now in terms of sequence and who does what next. The architect took the lead when we were doing the conceptual phase, but now this turns more into an engineering project for the next phase. So, we have a refocus and switchover, in terms of team leadership, during the next phase,” Connors said the morning after the meeting. 
Thoughts? Questions? Contact the author, Shay Roddy, at or 609-886-8600, ext. 142.

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